SANDS: A royal conundrum: What to do about the king?
The beginning player is taught that the primary objectives of opening play are to develop the pieces and get the king castled safely. More sophisticated players know that in many modern opening lines, those rules, particularly about the king, are made to be broken. Sometimes, those sophisticated players would be wise to play like the beginners.
New York-born Italian GM Fabiano Caruana had a shot at winning the always strong Aeroflot Open earlier this month in Moscow, but his failure to protect his king in the early going cost him dearly in a key game against Polish GM Mateusz Bartel. Bartel would use the upset win to propel himself to an unexpected first in the Aeroflot premier section, which included about 75 grandmasters in the 86-player section.
In a Slav Defense, Caruana’s 14. 0-0 Kf8?! is meant to keep the king’s rook posted on the half-open h-file, but Black would have been better advised just to castle and be done with it. After 15. a4 a5 16. e4! (promptly opening the center now that the Black king is marooned there) dxe4 17. Nxe4 Rh5 18. Rfe1 Nxe4 19. Bxe4 Bd6 20. Qf3!, the White pieces already are starting to circle ominously around the Black king.
But things fall apart with stunning swiftness for Caruana after 20. … Nxa4 21. Bxg6 Rh8?? (Black had to keep his rook along the fifth rank to prevent White’s next move, but Bartel is still much better in lines like 21. … Rd5 22. Be4 Nb6 [probably best as trying to preserve the rook with 22. … Rb5 23. d5! Rxb2 24. dxc6 b6 25. Qh5 Rxd2 26. Qh8+ Ke7 27. Bf3+ Be5 28. Qxg7 is nasty] 23. Bxd5 Nxd5) 22. Bg5!, and Black’s abrupt resignation requires a little explanation.
White’s threats are 23. Re7! and 23. Be7+!, in both cases cutting off the Black queen from defending the mate threat on f7. The Black king’s vulnerable position undermines every defense: 22. … Re8 23. Rxe8+ Kxe8 24. Re1+ Kd7 (Kf8 25. Re7! wins again) 25. Bf5 mate; or 22. … f6 23. Re6! Be7 (to stop 24. Bxf6) 24. Rce1 Nb6 25. Bf4 Qd7 26. Rxe7 Qxe7 27. Rxe7 Kxe7 28. Qa3+ Kd8 29. Qd6+ Nd7 30. Bf5 Ke8 31. Qxd7+ Kf8 32. Bd6+ Kg8 33. Qe6 mate.
Aleksandrov-Gundavaa after 22. Nd4-f3. more >
The always-interesting Georgian GM Baadur Jobava gave a better illustration of the provocative use of the king in his win over young American GMRay Robson in Moscow. In a King’s Indian, the Black king is safely castled behind a fianchettoed bishop, while the White king wanders to f2 as the center comes under heavy fire - and it is White who claims the brilliant attacking victory.
With his queen-side wide open and the h-file his preferred avenue of attack, Jobava tucks his king on an unlikely square while he revs up his attack: 15. Be4 Qd7 16. Kf2!? (a move not without risks, but now the White rooks are connected and the White king is one file farther away from the risky d-file) Ba6?! 17. Qa4! (winning a tempo for his stunning 19th move) Bb7 18. Bh6 Rad8 (Black threatens to break things open with 19. … Nxd4 20. Qxd7 Rxd7 21. Bxb7 Nxe2 22. Be4 Nc3, winning material) 19. Qa3!!, ignoring Black’s “threat” in order to transfer the queen to the kingside via e3.
While White’s king happily spectates, it is Black’s castled king that is run to ground - 19. … Nxd4 (f5 20. Bxc6 Bxc6 [Qxc6 21. Bxg7 Kxg7 22. Qxe7+ Rf7 23. Rh7+! leads to mate] 21. Qe3) 20. Bxg7 Kxg7 21. Qe3 (threatening mate in two) f5 22. Qh6+ Kf7 23. Qh7+ Ke6 (Ke8 24. Qxg6+ Rf7 25. Rh8 mate) 24. Qxg6+! and the Black king is pushed inexorably forward.
The king gobbles up material as he advances, but he stands no chance in the open field: 24. … Kxe5 25. Rad1 Rg8 26. f4+! Kxe4 27. Nc3+ Kxf4 28. Rh4+ Ke5 29. Re1+, and Black resigns facing 29. … Be4 30. Rhxe4+ fxe4 31. Rxe4 mate.
And even grandmasters can get careless about one of the oldest known mating motifs - the back-rank mate. Starting from today’s diagram, one can (almost) excuse Mongolian IM Bayarsaikhan Gundavaa for failing to sense the danger in his game against Belarus’ GM Aleksej Aleksandrov, though this is exactly the kind of position that - in hindsight - screams out for luft with 22. … h6.
Instead, Black pays the price for cavalier play on 22. … d4? 23. exd4 Bxd4?? (the last chance to turn back was 23. … Rf6 24. Qe4 Rf4 25. Qe3 Bb6 26. Rfd1, accepting the loss of the pawn) 24. Nxd4 Nxd4 25. Bxd4 Rxd4 26. Qe5!, when Black’s embarrassed queen can neither accept the sacrifice (26. … Qxe5 Rc8+ leads to mate) nor move away (26. … Qd8 27. Qxd4!; 26. … Re4 27. Qxe7 Rxe7 28. Rc8+). Gundavaa resigned at once.
Bartel-Caruana, Moscow, February 2012
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bg4 5. Nc3 e6 6. h3 Bh5 7. Qb3 Qc7 8. Nh4 Nbd7 9. Bd2 Nb6 10. cxd5 exd5 11. Rc1 Bg6 12. Nxg6 hxg6 13. Bd3 Be7 14. O-O Kf8 15. a4 a5 16. e4 dxe4 17. Nxe4 Rh5 18. Rfe1 Nxe4 19. Bxe4 Bd6 20. Qf3 Nxa4 21. Bxg6 Rh8 22. Bg5 1-0.
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